The Lowdown On Acetaminophen And Ibuprofen

Acetaminophen (Tylenol®) and ibuprofen (Advil®) are popular over-the-counter pain relievers—but they each have distinct strengths, advantages, and risks. We compare the benefits and disadvantages of these medications to help you make the best choice when you need a pain remedy.

At one point or another, you have probably reached for an over-the-counter pain reliever to treat a headache, sore muscles, cramps, fever, or other discomfort. Acetaminophen and ibuprofen are two of the most popular pain medications. Do you have a preference? We provide guidelines to help you choose the right medication for your pain, and to explain the risks of each.

Although acetaminophen and ibuprofen both relieve pain, they work in different ways—and on different kinds of pain. Acetaminophen works by blocking pain receptors in the brain. It will relieve pain and reduce fever, but it doesn’t act on pain caused by inflammation. Ibuprofen blocks pain and reduces inflammation. The body metabolizes these medications differently, too: acetaminophen is cleared by the liver; ibuprofen is broken down by the kidneys.

Both medications will ease the pain of a sore throat. For other issues, one medication will work better than the other. We’ve created a list to make it easy for you to evaluate your medication choice based on the pain relief you need.

Acetaminophen is the more effective choice for pain caused by:

  • Headache
  • Arthritis

Ibuprofen provides better relief from inflammation-related pain caused by:

  • Fever
  • Menstrual cramps
  • Sinusitis
  • Backache
  • Muscle soreness
  • Earache
  • Toothache

Both medications can be taken safely when you follow directions and make a point of taking the smallest effective dose for the shortest amount of time. Moderation is the key to using these medications safely.

The maximum recommended dose of acetaminophen is 3,250 mg, or 10 regular or six extra-strength pills per day. Because this medication is processed by your liver, you shouldn’t use it if you have three or more alcoholic drinks a day.

The maximum recommended dose of ibuprofen is 2,400 mg, or 12 over-the-counter tablets per day. Ibuprofen can irritate your stomach and has been linked to bleeding risks; if you have concerns, check with your doctor before using it. Bleeding risks increase for people who are past 60, those who have ulcers, or those who take blood thinners, steroids, NSAIDs, or consume three or more alcoholic drinks daily. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should also talk with their doctor before using ibuprofen. Those who take daily aspirin to protect against heart attack or stroke should be aware that ibuprofen will lessen aspirin’s preventative effectiveness. Some people are allergic to ibuprofen, and should seek help if they experience an allergic reaction. These reactions could affect the skin (rash, redness, blistering, or itchiness); airways (wheezing, tightness in the chest or throat, difficulty breathing); or the face and throat—where swelling signals an allergic reaction.

Because both pain relievers do have risks, especially at high dosages, it is important to take no more medication than you need to ease your pain. You may also want to consider switching between the two medications when you can to maximize pain-relieving benefits while balancing the demands on your kidneys and liver. If you have any questions, you can always talk with your Summit Orthopedics physician to determine the safest and most effective pain medication for your condition.



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